Marten Söderblom Saarela

Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica
Faculty Adviser: Benjamin Elman

Manchu and the Study of Language in China (1607-1911)

Abstract: The present work treats the Manchu script’s influence on language studies in Qīng China, roughly covering the period 1607–1911. The Manchu script, which had its roots in the Near East, was used to write the language of the Qīng ruling house and parts of its hereditary military elite. The Qīng empire emerged as a regional power in Northeast Asia in the first decades of the seventeenth century, and subsequently ruled China and parts of Inner Asia from the mid-seventeenth century until 1912, when a republic replaced it in China and parts of the other former imperial possessions. This study argues that Qīng thinkers theorized the Manchu script in reference to ideas from the Inner Asian and partially Buddhist Chinese traditions. As such, the Manchu script formed the basis of a distinct method of serial lexicographic arrangement, eventually applied also to Chinese corpora, and heavily influenced how speech sounds were transcribed across writing systems in Chinese and Manchu dictionaries, thesauri, and language manuals. The study demonstrates this thesis by discussing the development of elementary Manchu language pedagogy, lexicography, and phonology. The dissertation introduces the languages historically spoken and written in China; gives an overview of education in imperial China and traces the development of Chinese lexicography and phonology as disciplines before the late imperial period; describes the history of script creation in Inner Asia, including in Manchuria; discusses the Manchu bureaucracy, education, and publishing in China in the period of Manchu rule; presents the history of the Manchu syllabary; traces the development of Manchu dictionaries as tools for managing information; argues how the encounter with the Manchu script compelled Chinese scholars to develop new methods of indicating the pronunciation of Chinese characters; and, finally, shows that the Manchu script came to be used to clarify the pronunciation of the emerging standard Chinese language of Mandarin. An appendix problematizes and traces how European scholars came to think of the Manchu script not as a syllabary, as they thought of it in China, but as an alphabet similar to the European script